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Phreaking the Phones: Before There Was Hacking

Illustration for article titled Phreaking the Phones: Before There Was Hacking

Before there were computer hackers, there were phreakers. And before there were Macs, Jobs and Woz kept themselves busy building their own blue boxes (above) which would emulate precise control tones to seize control of the phone system.


They were inspired by this Esquire article from 1971 called Secrets of the Little Blue Box, by legendary writer (and typewriter fetishist) Ron Rosenbaum.


Woz's boxes were simple, by standards of circuitry, but the original creator of the Blue Box built his with failsafes in mind in case the law got too suspicious.

He sighs. "We had this order for a thousand beeper boxes from a syndicate front man in Las Vegas. They use them to place bets coast to coast, keep lines open for hours, all of which can get expensive if you have to pay. The deal was a thousand blue boxes for $300 apiece. Before then we retailed them for $1,500 apiece, but $300,000 in one lump was hard to turn down. We had a manufacturing deal worked out in the Philippines. Everything ready to go. Anyway, the model I had ready for limited mass production was small enough to fit inside a flip-top Marlboro box. It had flush touch panels for a keyboard, rather than these unsightly buttons sticking out. Looked just like a tiny portable radio. In fact, I had designed it with a tiny transistor receiver to get one AM channel, so in case the law became suspicious the owner could switch on the radio part, start snapping his fingers, and no one could tell anything illegal was going on. I thought of everything for this model—I had it lined with a band of thermite which could be ignited by radio signal from a tiny button transmitter on your belt, so it could be burned to ashes instantly in case of a bust. It was beautiful. A beautiful little machine. You should have seen the faces on these syndicate guys when they came back after trying it out. They'd hold it in their palm like they never wanted to let it go, and they'd say, 'I can't believe it. I can't believe it.' You probably won't believe it until you try it."

[Esquire; photo of the Blue Box taken at the Computer History Museum]

Gizmodo '79 is a week-long celebration of gadgets and geekdom 30 years ago, as the analog age gave way to the digital, and most of our favorite toys were just being born.


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My friend and I used that article in Esquire to build simple PLL circuits and made our own Blue Boxes, at nearly the same time the Steve's were doing it, it the early 70's. We used them for a few years, until a friend in the local Ma Bell grp told us they had found a way to track us. We never got caught, made about 20 of 'em, disguised in cigarette packages.